Getting realistic about your endless list of writing projects

Aila Hoss is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

Her research explores topics in public health law, health policy development, and the impact of federal Indian law and Tribal law on health outcomes. Her recent projects study law and policy interventions to respond to the opioid crisis. Prior to joining the faculty at IU, Aila served as a staff attorney for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Law Program (PHLP), where she worked to improve public health through the development of legal tools and the provision of legal technical assistance to state, Tribal, local, and territorial governments.

Aila completed her Bachelor of Arts at Emory University and her Juris Doctor at the University of Oregon. She is an active member of the Indiana bar. She tweets from @ailahoss.


Photo by J.J. Ying | unsplash.com

The entirety of my career in public health law has included some component of research and publishing.

This year, I hit an unfortunate milestone: my writing project list had ballooned to nearly 70 entries.

These projects ranged from articles accepted for publication and undergoing the final editing process to random ideas collected over the course of a decade. The volume of unfinished projects left me completely unable to prioritize how I should devote my writing time.

This week, I finally decided it was time to get realistic and trim the list.

Over the course of four hours, I went through each item and evaluated how much research I had conducted on the project and how much writing I had completed. I compared this investment against my research priorities and then deleted; consolidated; and prioritized them.

Here’s what I learned.

Delete What’s Not on Your Research Arc

I am doing a Visiting Assistant Professorship (VAP) and about to go on the tenure-track job market. My public health law practice, although it had a clear thread, included a hodge-podge of public health research projects because I was working at busy public health agency. Now that I am on the academic path and have a foundation of research interest and expertise, I don’t have to work on every interesting issue that comes through the door. So, I cut out ideas that weren’t on my research arc and that I hadn’t started any meaningful work on. It’s not my job to research every important issue that comes along.

One project I cut out is an article I wrote for an international environmental law class in law school on the role of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in addressing climate change. I always toyed with the idea that I would update the research and publish it. But I decided that too much has changed and so much has already been published on the topic since then. It wouldn’t be worth my time investment when it’s a project that was not on my arc.

Delete What Doesn’t Resonate Anymore

There were several projects that topically fell within my research area but whose theses no longer resonated with me, or that were no longer timely. These got chucked as well.

This included two articles that I was assigned to draft by more senior colleagues while I was in practice. I didn’t really understand the value or vision for either of these articles but I was so delighted to be asked to take the lead on drafting them that I painstakingly pushed each of them through dozens and dozens of drafts and iterations. No surprise, they never ever got published despite all or my pushing and shoving. As a preventive measure, avoid projects you are not excited about whenever you can!

Consolidate or Recycle What You Can

I spent a little more time combing through the materials I had collected from category 2 above. Because they were in my overall research area, I found there were often very relevant literature that I could use for other projects and even several pages of writing that I could recycle for other articles.

The oldest project of the bunch was a paper I wrote for a French literature seminar in undergrad entitled “Ghosts of the Plantation.” We were asked to tie various novels related to slavery to an issue of our choosing. My topic was on the remnants of hospital segregation on modern day care at a public hospital in the South. I loved that paper. And, the themes I raised in the paper are relevant to my research today, but there is already a rich literature on this topic covered by folks with substantial expertise on slavery and segregation. I deleted the project but managed to save some of the work for existing projects.

Save Good Ideas (but don’t let them distract you)

The biggest category of projects on my list included ideas that I am still excited about where I had done some research (or sometimes a lot of research on) but I just don’t have the bandwidth to prioritize right now. I marked them as ideas rather than active projects.

Assign a Timeline and Conditions (if necessary)

The remainder of the projects were marked as priority items within my research portfolio. Those that are outside of my portfolio were situations where I had already done so much work on them that I could not bear to let them die. I assigned timelines to these items across this calendar year and the next. For the latter category, I set a condition that if they are not done by the end of next academic year, then they’ve got to be killed.

Don’t be surprised if this is an emotional process for you.  It’s not easy saying goodbye to projects that you’ve invested a lot of energy and resources on. But, oftentimes, there is a good reason why you weren’t able to push them through the finish line. Not all projects are meant to be completed.

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